In praise of meetings.

“I meet, therefore I am.” – (what Descartes might say were he alive today?)

“It’s the community, stupid!” – (with apologies to James Carville)

As I write this, the AMS 104th Annual Meeting is underway up the road in Baltimore, bringing together a few thousand scientists; engineers; corporate-, government-, and academic leaders together for several days – roughly one work week. Most come from the United States, but there’s global representation. The meeting purview covers the whole of the Earth sciences and their application for societal benefit.

Hmm. Where does it fit in the scheme of things? To find out, I Googled “number of business conferences held annually.” As you might guess, such a poorly-constructed query produced a squirrelly set of results. One sample gives a flavor:

“The answer to this varies, but according to our estimate, there are around 2 million business events, which includes tradeshows, conferences, seminars and other public business networking events. On 10Times we cover approx 300000 such shows and see the number growing every year.”

That’s a lot of meetings. A lot of work time. A lot of travel. A huge carbon footprint. I tried to get an estimate of the latter using Google and Chatbox; my rudimentary skills and limited time didn’t generate a crisp answer, but did surface estimates such as the one that academics attend four conferences and perhaps one international conference annually. That feels a bit high/I’m guessing that figure might better describe senior academicians than those who are early-career. Another figure that caught my eye in passing was a statement that some 35% of scientists’ carbon footprint might be such travel.

We’d probably all be skeptical of efforts to reduce this carbon footprint of this magnitude through offsets (another squirrelly realm). So then the question arises, given the opportunity cost of the time spent, and the environmental impact, is science conference travel worth it? Quite a bit of the writing out there speaks to the contrary, extolling the virtues of virtual meetings, etc.

My personal experience as a manager of scientists was wholly subjective, and mostly preceded the carbon-footprint concerns, but concluded the opposite. My experience has been that conferences offer a hugely favorable cost benefit, even with environmental costs a consideration. Meeting travel, accompanied by the criterion that it would be funded only if the traveler were presenting a paper, seemed to be a major driver of productivity. If a scientist produced one more paper a year as a result, given his/her annual salary and overheads, the travel cost was a small price to pay from my standpoint and that of our employer.

Some might raise questions about the quality and impact of those papers – but again, to me, that’s where the payoff truly begins. Scientists working in isolation tend to become too absorbed in the problems and details of their work, losing sight of bigger questions such as its broader applications and whether it has any real potential for application and/or accelerating the overall advance of science. Meetings provide a bracing reality check.  The sight of all the progress in myriad directions accomplished by so many colleagues reawakens perspective, broadens horizons, and pushes every participant to do better. Given that our science is a major guide used by nations, energy corporations, agribusiness and individuals to cope with climate change, hazard resilience, and environmental quality challenges that periodic spur to greater productivity is vital to humanity’s future.

All this highlights the importance of community. Scientific conferences build community at the same time they harness it for societal benefit. Good ideas are contagious, like viruses. And scientific conferences are indeed spreader events – not just for covid-19, but for innovation.

Descartes didn’t have this advantage. In his time, there wasn’t much in the way of community to engage, and the means for such engagement were severely limited. He had to work in isolation, with largely his own thought to guide him. Progress was slow.  

Bottom line? Meetings are an engine for innovation – not a vacation from it.


As evidence for this, I’m racing against the clock this morning to finish and post this LOTRW post in response to a text message from a colleague that came in last night: “you’ve been quiet on LOTRW”(everything okay?). Still have to finish packing and have a spot of breakfast before my Uber to the train station and the quick trip to Baltimore. Meetings give a jolt even to the retired octogenarian. Looking forward to seeing colleagues and being inspired by their progress.

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